Unlearning Separatist Learning

This is a short series from people who want to share their Creative Practise. It’s been interesting to read interpretations of what this means for people. Also, I made clear I was happy for these to be blatant plugs as long as that didn’t detract from the main story.

The first is from Dr Helen Kara who writes about her book. Thanks, Helen!

At school, I learned the usual subjects: maths, English, art, geography, and so on.  All the subjects were treated as entirely separate from each other, even though we were taught maths in the English language and drew maps in geography.  

My first degree was a BSc in social psychology, at LSE in the early 1980s.  It was entirely quantitative, and when I asked to do a qualitative study for my third-year dissertation, the reply was a very firm ‘no’.  Fifteen years later I studied for an MSc in Social Research Methods; while this did cover qualitative and quantitative techniques, they were once again treated as entirely separate.

In my first 25 years of work, I had a wide range of separate occupations, including: cleaner, secretary, undergraduate, training administrator, volunteer, social worker, editor, humanist funeral celebrant, co-ordinator, trustee, researcher, postgraduate, author, doctoral student.  When I finished each role, one or more social rituals indicated that I was saying goodbye and moving on to something new and different.

But there was one thing I always wanted to do; a thread which ran through my life from childhood.  I wanted to write a book.  I started with stories in exercise books; wrote terrible agonised poems as a teenager; tried harder with plays in my early 20s; experimented with romance novels, a memoir, epic fantasy.  In my 30s I was lead author of a non-fiction book which actually got published and sold some copies.  But I still wanted to write a book by myself.

I kind of wrote one as my PhD thesis, which focused on the emotional aspects of the work of managers in public sector partnerships.  I loved the way the PhD process encouraged me to draw on, and enabled me to incorporate, all my learning and experience to date.  I think every single bit of study I’d done, and each occupation I’d held, contributed to the success of my doctoral studies.  Perhaps most important of all, I began to unlearn the learning that I had to keep my learnings separate.  (Try to keep up at the back, there.)

In the last year of my PhD, by which time I was into my 40s, I decided I wanted to write a book on research methods.  By this time I had been an independent researcher in social care and health for some years, so I’d learned quite a lot about how to do research.  There are as many research methods books as there are cookbooks.  I needed a new angle.  But could I think of one?  I could not.  So I continued conducting research with and for people working in public services who were struggling to manage increasingly stressful jobs.  Many of these practitioners also had to do their own research: either to support their work, such as service evaluations, or for continuing professional development, e.g. dissertations for Masters’ degrees.  Practitioners often asked me for advice about how to conduct their research projects, and about how to manage the process, and I was always happy to help.

Five years after my PhD I was idly thinking about the book I wanted to write, and all the other things I needed to be doing, when the penny dropped.  I needed to write for those practitioners!  I could combine everything I’d learned from them, about the difficulties they faced, with my own knowledge about how to do research.  Books which treated research like cookery, by offering how-to recipes in isolation from the rest of life, weren’t going to give them enough help.  New researchers needed a book which acknowledged how messy and complex research can be, and could give them the benefit of other people’s hindsight; a book which would have been really useful to me when I was doing my own PhD.  

My book, Research and Evaluation for Busy Practitioners: A Time-Saving Guide, was launched at the British Library in October 2012 and has received glowing reviews.  I regularly receive complimentary tweets from new readers.  Yesterday’s said, ‘It’s a good read and was desperately needed to kick start the new year’s resolutions!’  I know the book has made some people’s lives a little better, and I’m proud of that.

I’m working on the next book now.  It’s another research methods book with the working title Creative Research Methods: A Practical Guide (due for publication in early 2015).  I’m making connections between arts-based research, mixed-method research, transformative research frameworks, and research using technology.  This book requires a lot of background reading – which is inspirational.  There are so many social researchers drawing on their learning from other occupations and using it to inform their research.  I’ve read reports of research making use of experience from fields as diverse as textile arts, contemporary dance, film editing, motets, and figure skating.  There is lots of incredibly creative mixed-method research, by researchers who are not only skilled in quantitative and qualitative techniques, but see them as complementary and use both in the same project.  I hope this book, too, will improve the lives of others – but in the meantime it is certainly improving my own life, by helping me to unlearn more of my unhelpful separatist learning.

Unlearning separatist learning is, I’m finding, a process that can take a long time.  But it also seems to be very worthwhile.  It’s hard to be creative when you can only think in compartments.  Creativity is boosted by connections: of course this includes connections between people, but also connections between disciplines, fields of study, professions, occupations, activities, thoughts, ideas.  So make a little time to consider how you might benefit from unlearning separatist learning yourself.  You could end up somewhere completely unexpected – and wonderful.  I have.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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